Jenni Ogden Ph.D.

Trouble in Mind

Give Your Kids An IQ Boost For Christmas!

Is IQ really important, and if so why

Posted Dec 17, 2016

Source: Creative Commons Freedesignfile

In the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas and New Year, both widely celebrated, coincide with the beginning of summer and the long summer break from school, university and from many workplaces.  In turn the beginning of the long summer break marks the end of the academic year for all students and is marked by the end-of-year flurry of school cconcerts and prize giving ceremonies. When I was a school kid, awards were not given out for 1st, 2nd, 3rd in every single subject in every class, and from memory the only award I ever got at school was a book for ‘Most improved school work’—a prize that “damned with faint praise” as my father likely remarked.  Yet I do recall that I did occasionally top my class in English and Biology, and came 2nd or 3rd in a number of other subjects. I also recall that no-one much noticed.

The modern educational approach of awarding young children, at least up to thirteen or so, for effort, and for getting not just 1st, but 2nd, 3rd, and for simply doing their best in every subject and activity, is positive, and backed by solid psychological principles of learning. However, as one of the millions of proud parents and grandparents who watch their offspring march up on the stage to collect their fifth award, one could wonder if perhaps these kids are actually a lot more intelligent than we were at the same age. If they are the product of our genes, and IQ is primarily a genetic trait, then how can this be?

A recent book by Professor Jim Flynn, Does Your Family Make You Smarter? Nature, Nurture, and Human Autonomy, (Cambridge University Press, 2016) broaches this and other topics about the old question of IQ and the roles nuture and nature play in it.  Many years ago he pointed out that the standard IQ tests used in Western countries covered up a steady increase in IQ (defined as a combination of scores on tests of knowledge, vocabulary, comprehension, math, logical reasoning, visuospatial thinking and memory, and compared with normative data based on the scores of thousands of people of the same age and gender). This had come about because these IQ tests, where an IQ of 100 was the average score, were re-normed every ten years or so. Every ten years the normers found that the average child was performing about 3 points better than the same age child of ten years ago, so they re-adjusted the norms so the current average child scored the magic 100 and not 103.  This became know as the Flynn effect, and in practical terms meant that an average 12-year-old in 1960 who got an IQ score of 100 would get an IQ score of 109 if the norms from 1930 were used. For a population to gain in IQ ability so dramatically over a few years cannot be put down to evolution and our genes; evolution is not this rapid, especially in the human population where most people are given a chance to reproduce, regardless of their genetic makeup. So it must be our environment that enhances our IQ. As Flynn says, better nourishment, better schooling, smaller families and a more challenging world—especially mental world—has given every new generation the chance to make more of those neuronal connections that underpin our cognitive abilities.

There is no doubt that genetics play a major role as well; Einstein’s genetic potential was substantially higher than that of most of ours, and we could work our brains in all the right ways without any hope of reaching his brilliance. The material has to be there in the first place in order to improve on it.

Flynn’s recent research—analyses of age tables from different IQ test manuals to compare the scores of people in their fifties with those of young children— produced a range of interesting and useful findings. Here are a few, extensively summarized:

  1. In pre-school children a family life rich in conversation, reading, and problem solving will improve every child’s intelligence, regardless of genetics. On the dark side, a downgraded family environment often limits a child’s intelligence.
  2. A bright 10-year-old with siblings who are equally bright or brighter will gain a 5 to 10-point IQ start on the same child with siblings of average or lower intelligence.
  3. Once a child begins school, high-quality schooling, extra specialist tuition, and being in a class with bright peers can increase the IQ of a child with a lower IQ.
  4. From ages two to 17, the positive influence of  being in a bright family and having good schoolng benefits genetically lower IQ children more than genetically brighter IQ children.
  5. By the time the child is 17, environmental influence on the top 5% will be small, but for those with lower IQs environment can still either benefit them (adding up to seven IQ points with an enriched environment and special schooling) and disadvantage them (dropping their IQ by up to nine points if their home and school life is seriously deficient.)
  6. The older a child gets the more the effect of an early advantageous environment multiplies, and thus maintains or even continues to increase their IQ. For example, a child who does well in junior school and is perhaps seen as “gifted” will be put into more challenging classes with brighter peers, will receive more support for exam preparation, will be more likely to go on to get a higher degree or a challenging job, and will therefore be amongst intelligent colleagues with whom they will form relationships and friendships. They will likely choose someone from their own intellectual level to have children with, and so it goes on.
  7. Even adults can continue to improve their IQ to some degree. Upgrade the level of your cognitive stimulation in ways that both challenge and delight you. Be aware that people who share a home or workplace with people who fall below them in their ability to converse intelligently and have few interests of their own may suffer a decline in their own IQ. Of course you may not be able to change the people you live with, especially if you love them, but that shouldn’t stop you from compensating for boredom by finding outside interests of your own.

If you are not convinced that improving your IQ is a good thing, then take note of another of Flynn’s findings: high IQ as a measure of cognitive ability is positively correlated with good health outcomes and longevity, predicts growth in GDP per capita, and gives the population the best shot at being able to adapt to a rapidly changing job market, and the many challenges of our modern world, including finding solutions for climate change.

So as 2016 comes to an end, rather than thinking too many depressing thoughts about the political upheavels of recent times, concentrate on giving your children lots to think about and lots of challenging things to do, and do the same for yourselves. Even those who can't afford to send their kids to the best schools can have intelligent conversations with them, read to them, encourage them to read for themselves, show an interest in their schoolwork and hobbies, try and give them a quiet place to study (not aways possible of course...), and become more interesting themselves as parents! 

Just to flag that I do not think pushing our scores higher on the abilities that make up standard IQ tests should alone take top place on the scale of importance, in my next blog post I will branch out into those other equally important skills; the ones that our kids do after school and that adults should do more of (hint: dancing would be one of them).  

Happy Holidays!